CEDAR CITY — After a rare lapse on defense, the Southern Utah men’s basketball team needed late heroics to pull off a 73-72 victory over Utah Valley Saturday night at the America First Event Center.
SUU started off the game relaxed on defense, something that hadn’t really been seen from them, and the Wolverines jumped on them. UVU controlled the game up until about the 15-minute mark. The Thunderbirds were down by 12 but they continued to chip away at the lead. With five minutes left in the game, SUU was down one but they continued to fight.
With eight seconds left, SUU had the ball down by one. What happened next was magical.
John Knight III caught the ball, got to the rim and finished a layup to give the Thunderbirds the lead and the win.
“The original play was side zip, he (Dwayne Morgan) was supposed to screen down for me,” Knight III said. “When he saw number 11 on me, we pride ourselves on being big guards so when we get a little guard on us we have to take advantage. It just so happened that coach saw it and he believed me to get the ball.”
The Thunderbirds did not have any answers for UVU’s offense in the first half. The Wolverines were passing up good shots for great shots and they were converting. The Wolverines guards were abusing SUU defenders, and easily getting to the rim. That seemed to change when Damani McEntire got in the game. He immediately got a steal for a breakaway layup and forced the UVU guards to work more than they had been.
“He’s one of the better on ball defenders that I’ve ever coached. As he gets more experience, he’s going to be a significant weapon because nobody wants to go through him guarding you for any stretch of time.”
McEntire finished the game with a plus-minus of 13, which means that the Thunderbirds outscored the Wolverines by 13 when McEntire was on the floor. His performance was no surprise to Morgan and Knight III even said he looked like an upperclassmen, not a freshman.
“We deal with that every day in practice,” Morgan said. “It’s not really nothing new, we were just happy to see him actually show that in a real game and see what he’s capable of doing. When it comes to our freshman, the standard that we hold all of our freshman to, he probably gets held to the highest standard everyday. I’m proud of him.”
The Thunderbirds were down four at the half and then Utah Valley jumped on them early in the second half, getting their biggest lead of the game at the 14:15 mark. SUU was down 12, and it looked like the Wolverines weren’t going to stop.
At about the 10 minute mark, after a Wolverine flopping violation resulted in a technical foul, SUU went on a quick three-point swing and were down five. Maizen Fausett, coming back into the game after recovering from an elbow to the face, hit a quick three, took a charge and then got an offensive rebound that he laid back in.
“Felt good,” Fausett said of that string of plays. “I’ve been kind of struggling the last couple games. It felt good to finally do what I know I can do, perform and help my team out.”
All of the sudden, it was a one-point game with 4 minutes left. The America First Events Center was rocking, with the packed student section making an immense amount of noise.
“I honestly think that was the loudest the center has been since I’ve been here,” Morgan said.
The noise climaxed with a Cam Oluyitan breakaway dunk that brought the house down. SUU had their first lead since the beginning of the game. When asked about what he thought after that play, Morgan said he knew it was over.
“Seeing Cam dunk is a rare sight, so when I saw him dunk I was so happy for my boy,” Knight III said. “I haven’t seen him dunk since last year, and that’s including practice.”
It was a back and forth game for the last minute, ending with the Knight III layup that captured the victory for the Thunderbirds. The one thing that was consistent throughout the game was the energy that the student section and the fans brought. Head coach Todd Simon said that it was unlike anything he had ever coached.
Cam Oluyitan led the way with 19 points for the Thunderbirds, with Knight III, Morgan and Fausett all right behind with double-digit scoring.
As soon as the game ended, the whole team ran into the student section and posed for a picture.
“They gave us momentum,” Knight III said of the student section. “They were rocking the whole game so we had to show our appreciation for them coming out. They didn’t have to and they came out and supported us.”
After the game, everyone was in high spirits, but as Morgan was walking into the locker room he harped on the fact that they always take the tough road.
They dug themselves a big hole in the first half, and it started with their defense.
“That was the worst we played defensively in the first half,” Simon said. “We haven’t done that this year. We weren’t spectacular at [Loyola Marymount] but we were a little short handed. But here with our guys we just weren’t very good. We were a step late, just putting ourselves in bad situations. Luckily, they calmed down and kept those guys in front a little bit better and settled into a pretty big run after that.”
The shooting struggles also continued, regardless of the win, but it never seemed to faze the Thunderbirds. They continued to work, never showing any hesitancy.
“To be honest, it starts with the team,” Morgan said. “We all hold each other to a certain standard and we all instill confidence in each other. If some things don’t go right we all know that we’re all talented enough to get back on the right track.”
After taking some close loses on a long road trip, this win was a big one for SUU. They were extremely close to getting a win against BYU, they almost got a win against UCLA and couldn’t quite handle LMU. This was their first home game against a Division I opponent on the season, and it was easy to see the team was happy to be back home.
“It means a lot because we let a couple games slip that we for sure know we weren’t supposed to let slip,” Morgan said. “It’s a long season, so with that being said we’ll enjoy today, but we got another home game Saturday. Just put on another show.”
That game, at 2 p.m. next Saturday at home, will be against a good UC Santa Barbara team. Some picked the Gauchos to win the Big West this season and they are currently on a five-game winning streak.
The tough non-conference schedule continues for SUU, but at least they’re home.
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